Thomas B. Edsall argues in his “The Politics of Austerity” in the New York Times Opinion pages that Republicans may be “playing with fire” for themselves, as well as for the nation. First, observes Edsall:
As the national debt grew from $10.6 trillion when Obama took office to $13.7 trillion on Election Day 2010, the stage was set for a conservative revival. Conservatives successfully shifted the focus of American politics to the twin themes of debt and austerity — with a specific attack on means-tested entitlement programs.
The Republican Party, after winning back control of the House in 2010, has reverted to the penny-pinching of an earlier era, the green eyeshade Grand Old Party of Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft, advocating a “root canal” approach to governance evident in the first budget passed by the Republican-controlled House — the Paul Ryan “path to prosperity” budget with $4 trillion in cuts — and the subsequent Aug. 2 debt ceiling agreement.
Edsall argues that “The new embattled partisan environment allows conservatives to pit …those dependent on safety-net programs against those who see such programs as eating away at their personal income and assets.” Edall notes further, how “The conservative agenda, in a climate of scarcity, racializes policy making, calling for deep cuts in programs for the poor.
…The beneficiaries of these programs are disproportionately black and Hispanic. In 2009, according to census data, 50.9 percent of black households, 53.3 percent of Hispanic households and 20.5 percent of white households received some form of means-tested government assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid and public housing.
Less obviously, but just as racially charged, is the assault on public employees. “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” declared Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.
For black Americans, government employment is a crucial means of upward mobility. The federal work force is 18.6 percent African-American, compared with 10.9 percent in the private sector. The percentages of African-Americans are highest in just those agencies that are most actively targeted for cuts by Republicans: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 38.3 percent; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 42.4 percent; and the Education Department, 36.6 percent.
Edsall succinctly defines the salient principle of ‘austerity politics’: “Once austerity dominates the agenda, the only question is where the ax falls.” But he also sees Dems having leverage in conservative overconfidence:
Still, conservatives have a tendency to overestimate public support for their agenda and consequently to overreach: recall the two government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996; the 1998 Clinton impeachment; and the Ryan budget, which gave Democrats a recent victory in upstate New York.
…Republicans are playing with fire, though, when they threaten American standing in the world, as they did in provoking Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States’ credit rating to AA+ from AAA in August. Confidence in Congressional Republicans fell 36 points after the debt ceiling debacle, compared with a 22-point drop for Mr. Obama.
In Edsall’s view, however, Dems can be faulted for weak messaging, which allows the tax and spend meme to stick to their party, alienating a good many swing voters. Edsall stops short of offering solutions in his post. But his post helps clarify what Dems should emphasize more sharply in their attack messaging, as well as in shoring up their defenses.